New report reveals surprising findings in the aftermath of COVID-19 lockdowns in Africa
COVID-19 has not increased food insecurity nor prevented people from accessing health care. These are among the findings that have baffled at team of CMI researchers that has monitored the effects of COVID-19 in African countries.
As COVID-19 first swiped over Africa, there was widespread concern over how African countries would tackle the pandemic. With high levels of food insecurity and vulnerability, a health system already under pressure, high unemployment rates, and armed conflicts and terrorist threats, many experts and commentators were expecting the virus to wreak havoc on the population. A team of CMI researchers have used high-frequency phone survey data from the World bank (WB) and the World Food Programme (WFP) to trace the socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns in Africa. And what they found, at least partly, proved the pessimists wrong.
While many households lost employment and experienced reduced household income, they did not report having less food to eat. In addition, they did not report experiencing increased inability to access health care. However, most children have were out of school for a period of six months, and few children engaged in learning activities in this period.
No evidence of increased food insecurity
The finding that surprised the research team the most is that there is no evidence for increased food insecurity in the wake of COVID-19. The data also shows that few had to resort to crisis level coping strategies, like selling personal property, to get enough money for food. While evidence elsewhere—and theory—suggests that households will do all they can to keep food consumption unaffected for some period when their incomes fall, what is surprising, given what we all thought about the scale of the pandemic, is that that households managed to keep food consumption from falling for a period of more than six months.
This does not mean that food insecurity is not widespread. Food insecurity was high throughout the period April-October 2020. Among the countries worst-off were Niger, Mali, and the DRC, where more than half of the households reported insufficient food consumption. In Mali, as many as 69 % of the respondents said that they had run out of food in May, and the adverse effects of food insecurity have far-reaching consequences in many countries.
-Running out of food can have dramatic long-term consequences. It basically boils down to the fact that families need to take decisions on who gets how much to eat. While it’s typically adults who will reduce their food intake, it may also result in low food consumption and poorer food quality for children. We know that this can lead to stunting and affect cognitive development, says Peter Hangoma, researcher at CMI.
The survey data show that not only the poorest families struggled to get enough food on the table. In Malawi, for example, 42% of the people on the lowest end of the income scale reported that they had run out of food, but as many as 18 % of the people with a high income also struggled to make ends meet.
The struggle many people go through to feed their families cannot be put down to one particular cause. Food insecurity can stem from a wide array of factors; difficulties in accessing the markets, limited food availability in the markets, low or reduced income, increased prices, lack of transport to get to the markets, and in some areas the dangers connected with travelling to the markets because of ongoing violent conflicts. But as the data shows, COVID-19 is not one of them.
The effects of school closures
School closures were part of the lockdown measures worldwide. By the end of March, schools had closed all over Africa. Most countries went from COVID-19-related school closures straight into the academic summer break. In some countries, children are still waiting for their schools to fully re-open.
The data from the phone surveys give a bleak picture of the consequences the COVID-19 pandemic has had on African children’s access to learning activities while their schools have been closed. The countries that performed best in providing out of school-activities to the pupils were Nigeria and Uganda. Still, even here only two thirds of families reported that their children engaged in learning activities in the last seven days prior to the survey. In Malawi, only 17% reported that their children engaged in learning activities in April and May.
-UNICEF has urged governments to safely re-open schools after the summer and we think this is really important. The data indicate that currently the school systems are not well prepared in supporting distance learning. While e-learning can replace some aspects of education, we need to bear in mind schools have other important functions. Many school children in Africa receive meals at school which can balance food insecurity at home. What we should be concerned about are also education gaps between richer and poorer households, between rural and urban areas and between girls and boys, says Carlo Koos, senior researcher at CMI.
Employment levels quickly recovered
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic and the following lockdown has had clear adverse socio-economic effects, the long-term consequences seem to be less severe than feared when it comes to employment and access to health services, the two other key aspects of household wellbeing covered by the phone surveys. Employment levels did drop sharply immediately after the lockdowns were implemented, but were quick to recover. For instance, pre-COVID-19 employment levels in Ethiopia were at 89%. Already in May employment levels were back at 85%.
-We were quite surprised that the reported employment levels bounced back so quickly. Once lockdown measures have been eased, many sectors especially in retail, commerce and the service industry have recovered. While this is certainly a good signal, we also need to acknowledge that this indicator only measures whether people have been at work, not the extent of employment, says Koos.
Access to health care is another key aspect where the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were less dramatic than what could be expected. The majority (74% to 92% according to World Bank data) were able to receive health care when needed, even though challenges in accessing health services was reported in some countries.
-We expected that the health systems would be overburdened and people’s access to treatment severely limited, but the data show across countries that the big majority of people receives medical treatment when needed. Why didn’t it turn out more dramatic? Africa hasn’t been hit as hard with COVID-19 cases and deaths as has been expected and that may have saved the health systems from collapsing. Africa has a young population, much public life such as markets happens outdoors and travel is more limited outside of cities, he says.
Clear recommendations for further engagement
The research team point to generally high levels of food insecurity and the adverse consequences of school closures as crucial areas for further engagement and support from international donors. Neither national programs for social assistance nor donor engagement are sufficient to deal with the grave food insecurity many people have faced and still are facing. As for the negative impact of school closures, the development over the next few months will be crucial.
-School closures have turned out to have a huge impact. It is obviously a government’s decision to keep schools closed, but if this is the approach they choose there should be policies in place and smart measures implemented to enable children to learning. While e-learning and educational TV and radio programs could be used more extensively, this also requires broad access to internet and electricity. In my opinion the safer fallback option is to increase teacher-student interaction and assignments, says Koos
While the WB and WFP surveys cover crucial areas of socio-economic development, many important indicators of people’s wellbeing, like mental health, the prevalence of domestic violence and crime, and social cohesion, are left out.
-The data we used to analyze household wellbeing and coping are valuable, but the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdowns have likely affected many other spheres of life that we currently know very little about. For instance, losing employment and income sources and staying at home is likely to create severe mental stress and may increase violence within families. Without sufficient data, it is difficult to devise appropriate responses. Neither do we know how the COVID-19 crisis affects communities. Scarce resources can create harsh competition and distributional conflicts, but they can also foster cooperation. Conflicts can turn violent and we typically want to address the conditions that promote violence.
-We should also get a better understanding of how all these aspects ranging from food security, livelihoods, education and health access affect vulnerable groups. People who live in conflict-affected areas can have poor access to services, but sometimes they receive even better support from international NGOs than households in safe areas. There are still many questions to explore that are not only important for policy makers and practitioners, but also academically, says Koos.
The report Household wellbeing and coping strategies in Africa during COVID-19: Findings from high frequency phone surveys has been commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its objective is to provide input as to which areas should be key areas of commitment for Norwegian foreign policy.
The report documents key aspects of household wellbeing in selected countries in sub-Saharan Africa during the COVID-19 crisis. The findings are based on high-frequency phone surveys from the World Bank (Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Uganda) and the World Food Programme (Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Niger).
The team behind the report consists of Peter Hangoma, Carlo Koos, and Ottar Mæstad.